Serving Underserved Populations: The Importance of Learning ASL

The other day I was working the reception desk at my job at a car dealer when a woman came up.  I asked her what I could do for her, and she motioned she needed a pen and paper to write.  It took a moment, but it dawned on me that the woman was deaf.  Luckily, another costumer was standing at the desk waiting for the salesman I had paged for her and realized it as well and began signing my question.  She was able to figure out what the woman needed, relay it to me, and I was able to direct her to our Used Car Center down the road.  Once the deaf woman left, the other costumer said “Timing!”  And she’s right.  If she had not been there, I would have had to communicate with her solely through writing. 

Which brings me to my point.  Working in a library you come across costumers from all walks of life and disabilities – just as you do in a car dealership.  After all, deaf people read and drive just like the rest of us.  However, most of us never learn any sign language.  In a world where learning a second language is emphasized, and in most states needed to graduate high school, sign langauge is rarely considered or offered unless the prospective student has a member of their family who is deaf.  It is routinely overlooked as a possible second language in favor of Spanish or French, the two top languages offered by high schools, because it isn’t a foreign language but a signed version of English. 

In Florida the majority learns Spanish, and considering the large amount of hispanic immigrants in Florida this a logical choice.  Many areas, like Miami, have huge hispanic populations and many of them don’t speak enough English making it essential for librarians and library workers to speak at least some Spanish.  We talk about offering bilingual storytimes in these areas in school, and I even had a classmate do her storytime planning project for Youth Services on a bilingual storytime.  This is great that we consider this segment of our population, but what about the deaf community?

Patrons who are deaf and hard of hearing deserve our attention just as much as those that are blind, don’t speak English, or have disabilities.  Yet, most of us wouldn’t be able to communicate with them if they came into our library because when we consider learning a second language we almost always consider learning a foreign language like Spanish.  Some systems have started to teach a few signs to young children at storytime as this is the ideal age to teach a second language, but what about the librarians and other adults who work in the library?  Shouldn’t we take the time to learn a few basic signs ourselves?  I know how to say please, thank you, and I’m sorry, and am rusty on the letters, but sadly that isn’t enough because I wouldn’t be able to determine a patrons needs or wants.

In my life, I’ve had neighbors with deaf children and a family friend has a deaf son who I was never able to communicate with when I stayed with them growing up.  This has always caused me to have an interest in learning American Sign Language, or ASL.  At a book sale at the mall bookstore I once bought a book on ASL but have yet to get around to looking it over.  This incident has renewed my interest in learning ASL so that when I do come across a patron who is deaf I can communicate with them.  I feel that ASL should be an acceptable second language to learn, especailly for those that work in an area of public service such as a library.  We can’t forget these patrons.  If we consider learning Spanish a plus among librarians we should also consider learning ASL.

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2 thoughts on “Serving Underserved Populations: The Importance of Learning ASL

  1. You make some really excellent points. We have two deaf patrons at my library. One only ever uses the computers. She stops by the desk to get her pass and we know to make her a reservation and give her an alcohol pad without her even asking anymore. The other, unfortunately, can’t write and only knows the basics of reading, so he is unable to really ask us questions. Sometimes, he has a friend transcribe his signed questions onto paper, but there is a definite lack of ability for us to help him in-depth. This is a situation where if there was just one librarian who knew ASL, we might be able to make a huge difference in his life. As it is, he mostly leaves our desk without real help, and with both he and us very frustrated that we can’t get past this barrier. It’s on my list to learn, but without any free training or webinars, it’s difficult to make it happen.

    • It’s a shame the second can’t write and can’t read well. There is no reason why he couldn’t learn those things and be completely literate like his peers. Their is only so much you can do then. Free training and webinars would be ideal, but I think the local community college near me might have classes. I might have to look into that. If not, I plan to finally get around to looking over that book and learning some of the basic signs in it. Something is better than nothing.

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